We’ve highlighted several media interviews recently where spokespeople have tried to manage difficult questions by answering something completely different.
And we have shown how we are increasingly seeing that journalists are prepared to call this approach out and embarrass evasive interviewees.
You may remember Kay Burley’s “Health Secretary, that’s not my question” comment as Matt Hancock tried to crudely steer the conversation away from an uncomfortable area.
Or maybe you recall Emily Maitlis telling a floundering Huawei spokesperson that “it is a simple enough question” as he tried to dodge a particular issue.
The spokespeople in these examples had both found themselves in the position of facing questions that were not directly related to the topic of the interview and that they didn’t want to answer.
This often happens in media interviews, particularly, but not always, at the end.
Wider issues are brought into the conversation and the interview can move to some particularly difficult areas.
However, simply trying to avoid these questions is not a good look.
It enables a spokesperson to respond to difficult or challenging questions which they don’t want to answer, by using a form of words to move the conversation back to the topic they want to talk about.
When it is used well, it sounds natural and it can be difficult for the audience to detect.
But what do we mean by “used well”?
Well, before we go into how to use it in more detail, let’s start by looking at some bridging phrases you could use.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know, but what I can tell you is that…”
“That’s a good point, but let’s not forget that…”
“I have heard that, but keep in mind that…”
“I can’t speak on his / her behalf, but what I do know is that…”
“That’s not something I’m an expert on, but what I do know is that…”
“I can understand why people may have those concerns, but our research shows that…”
“I’m sure/not sure that’s the case, but I would add that…”
“That’s an interesting observation, but I think the it’s important we don’t forget that…”
“I agree/don’t agree, but what I think a lot of people don’t know is that…”
“I don’t have that information to hand, but what I have found is that…”
“I believe/don’t believe that’s the case, but another thing to remember is that…”
“That is important, but we think that at the moment the focus should be on…”
“That doesn’t have to be the case, but what we do need to do now is…”
In all these examples, the question is acknowledged or briefly answered, before we use bridging to get away from the challenging issue to the message we want to get across.
And that acknowledgement is imperative because without it you will sound evasive – like some of the interviewees we have highlighted in recent editions of this media training blog - and the journalist is far more likely to come back and repeat the question.
You could answer the question in a little more detail than we have here, depending on how comfortable you are with it, or you could stick to the short answer approach we took. But whatever you decide, there must be that initial answer or acknowledgement of the question.
The other important point to note with these phrases is that they are just examples and not a template. They may not work for you.
The key thing with bridging and using the technique well is to use phrases you are comfortable with and that sound like something you would say.
You don’t want to find yourself sounding scripted or saying something that takes away from your authenticity.
Practice using the technique before you do any interviews and you will begin to get a feel for the phrases that feel right for you.
Once you have bridged successfully and got back to your message, the key is to then to develop your answers by telling a story or giving an example which supports it and is relevant to your target audience. This, of course, means truly understanding the journalist's audience and what they are interested in.
There are many blogs on that topic within these pages but it’s also important that you work closely with your comms and media team to understand who you are talking to.
If you follow this advice, in most cases, the journalist will let you carry on as they know this is good for their audience.
So, what else do you need to know?
Well, don’t overuse it. If you are going to use the technique on every question then you will sound evasive and you will not achieve that natural-sounding conversation you should be striving for. Treat it as another part of your spokesperson’s toolkit.
You also need to use it with some care and judgement. Bridging works well to manage the wider issues that can be brought into the interview and prevent them from becoming a distraction. But if it used on a question at the heart of your subject that the journalist believes you should be more willing to address – particularly during a crisis media management scenario – then they are likely to come back to that question and keep pushing for a fuller response.
And like so much of delivering a successful media interview, preparation is crucial. Think in advance about the difficult questions and wider issues that could be brought in to your interview and consider how you would handle them. If they are not something you are keen to get drawn on, plan how you could bridge away and then practice doing it with your family, friends or colleagues.
It is important to note that there is some criticism of the bridging technique and that critics view it as a form of evasion.
But, actually, in the examples we have outlined above, each response starts with a direct, albeit short, answer. As we’ve said already, you can make those answers a little longer if you feel comfortable or add some empathy if it is appropriate.
And, if we think about it, we actually try and steer conversations all the time in our day to day lives. How many times do you say something like ‘anyway’, ‘but’ or ‘however’, to give a few examples?
It is only when bridging is used poorly or clumsily in interviews that the audience – the people you are really talking to – might think you are being shifty.
When it is used well, you don’t need to worry about it being spotted.
To highlight this, I’ll take you back to the Matt Hancock interview we mentioned at the start and covered in one of our recent blogs. He was asked by presenter Kay Burley for his thoughts on the appointment of Tony Abbott as a trade envoy, given some of his controversial views.
Burley: So, we can forgive his comments about women, about letting the elderly die of COVID-19, about his views on the gay community? We can forgive all of that because he is good at trade?
Hancock: Well, I’m doing everything in my power to prevent a second wave and protect people from coronavirus.
Burley: Health Secretary, that’s not my question.
You can see that the Health Secretary simply ignores the question that has been asked and attempts to answer a more preferable question. That is not bridging, it doesn’t work, and the journalist tries to embarrass him for it.
Compare that to how his colleague Grant Shapps handled a similar question from the same presenter a few days later.
Burley: Just to clarify, before you go, you are not threatened by homosexuality – he is; you do not think men are more suited to lead – he does; he also is a climate change denier and yet he is one of 16 people representing our country in trade talks and you are completely comfortable with that?
Shapps: Well, as you have rightly drawn out, I don’t agree with any of those three points. I’ve always been a very liberal sort of person and I’m really not interested in what people do in their private lives. I certainly believe climate change is real and we have to act on it. So, no I don’t agree with those things. But I do agree that Britain needs a really good deal or trade deals around the world and we need expertise in it. And here is someone who has got global expertise. He was the Prime Minister of Australia. He is not someone chosen at random and is one voice in a whole bunch of different voices, unpaid for the role, and I think he will be able to help us secure jobs in Britain by having great trade deals in other places in the world. So that expertise and knowledge will be useful to the United Kingdom and Britain.
In this example, the question of Mr Abbott’s views is addressed and responded to before Mr Shapps moves the conversation on to what he believes the Australian politician will bring to the role.
It is a much better approach. Not only does he avoid appearing evasive, but he also doesn’t get asked any follow up questions on the issue.
Bridging works best with practice and the words and phrases that you would naturally use. And this is where we come in. We can guide you through it and build up your experience and confidence with using it either face-to-face or through videoconferencing software.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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